Charlie Baxter has lived in Deptford for the past 10 years and in that time, she has got so involved in the local community that it is now difficult to imagine Deptford without her. Charlie volunteers as a Scout Leader at 2nd Deptford, the local Scouts Hall, she volunteers and is trustee at the Sir John Evelyn Trust, a charity which looks after the elderly, and she volunteers at Tidemill School, reading with the children and acting as a parent governor. Charlie also has two jobs: she is Fun and Wellbeing Leader at Tidemill School and runs her own business – Baxter Party Services – organising family events in the local area such as the annual Summer Festival at the Armada Hall, Halloween Party at the Scouts Hall and more recently a Christmas and New Year’s Eve party in the same place, the Stay & Play Group, a toddlers’ play group once a week at the Armada and privately booked parties (see images below). Charlie also has a family with 5 children, some of whom are Scouts and attend local schools. Although Charlie does so much for local families, she doesn’t think of herself as doing anything special. “Being in touch with local families and having my fingers in all those pies is also good for my own benefit as it gives me links for my own business. Also, my kids are the next generation living in Deptford and I want them to grow up in a safe area so if there’s anything I can do to improve it I will. So, my voluntary work is not just out of the greatness of my heart, it is for a purpose as well!”
Charlie used to be a community worker and tells me a bit about the kind of work she used to do: “I used to work for Lady, so, for example, if a family came to the Children centre or the Nursery and said ‘I need help with housing, I’ve got damp up my walls’, we would speak to a housing officer, get medical reports and try to get the problem fixed. Another common issue we would deal with were women in abusive relationships that had run away from home and needed help with rebuilding their lives. There used to be this phenomenal course on offer, a Discover-Me-Course that was funded by the Children’s Centre and cost £6,000 and you would witness the transformation of these broken women who couldn’t cope with the most basic things in life into confident, independent women. The course was all about knowing yourself again, learning how to get out of bed in the morning and back to bed at night without fear; basically, how to have a normal life again, how to go back to work, how to get their shopping and whatever else they needed. It was amazing to see the journey they went through. All this has stopped now, the funding is gone, advice centres have closed due to funding cuts and women and families are left to fend for themselves, meaning women can’t escape abusive relationships and many families live in unhealthy conditions for years.”
Despite Charlie being incredibly well connected, she wouldn’t know where to send women now if they came to her saying, ‘I’m being beaten up by my husband, I don’t know what to do’. According to Charlie, there is no more community worker at the Children’s Centre at McMillan nursery, there is no-one anymore Charlie could ask for advice on this, and as far as she knows, there is no-one doing home visits anymore to try and help these women. The only nursery with a community worker Charlie is aware of in Greenwich is Quaggy, but as Charlie comments, “if you’re suffering from domestic violence, you’re not going to go far from your house. The fact that you’ve come out of your house is a miracle in itself, so having to go somewhere else is out of the question for many. I just don’t understand why they’ve taken away community workers: you’ve got a nursery full of families, you got a Children’s centre, why not have a community worker that can help with common problems? It’s a real shame!”
Charlie tells the story of a lady who recently went to a family liaison officer at a school, asking for help with being rehoused. “Her house is covered in damp from top to bottom so that it almost looks like it’s the wallpaper. Her baby, who is sleeping in the living room as the damp in the bedroom is worse, has asthma, coughs all the time and has chronic throat infection because of the damp, and yet no-one is able to help her. She’s been to the doctor several times, spoke to housing, spoke to the family liaison officer but no-one is behind her saying “No, this is not acceptable!” She’s been fighting this for 2 years and it looks like she’s not getting anywhere. It’s shocking!”
On top of all that, Charlie says there is another problem – the stigma of being poor particularly for single mothers, who are often perceived and represented as being dumb and as benefit scroungers. Charlie argues that jobs for mums, jobs that happen at a time when the child is in school and that offer 16 hours a week such as a dinner lady or cleaner, are scarce and childcare is too expensive to take on a job during school hours. “If you’re a single parent with young children and need to pay for childcare because you’re working, you need to earn £30,000 a year, if not £40,000 now, to be able to afford that. Childcare is expensive and there is no way on earth some of the women in this area would be able to afford it. And even if they were to work full-time, with housing benefit, income support and council tax taken off, they would never be able to support themselves with the little they get paid!” Charlie herself knows what it’s like not being able to afford to work as once she had to turn down a job at a school, a job she really wanted, because it would have left her worse off than on income support, a cut she couldn’t afford. Now, with her children being older, she has two jobs to support herself and her family.
When I ask Charlie about Deptford, how she perceives the area and what she thinks of the changes happening, she expresses concern about crime in the area, particularly on her road where a centre for young ex-offenders is located and where incidents and patrols are frequent. She is particularly worried about knife crime and the safety of her children, particularly her boys. “The amount of times I’ve turned on the news in the morning and a lad down the road has been stabbed and killed, or there’s been a fight and someone’s in hospital, and all my friends on Facebook go ‘Oh my God that’s So and So’s boy’. I really don’t want to be that mum who receives that phone call. I’ve got 2 girls and 3 boys, and it scares the hell out of me bringing up boys in London. So, if I can influence the area in any way, I’ll do that. My children are the next generation and I don’t want them on the streets in gangs and with knives, that’s why I try to get young kids involved in the Scouts group, to get them off the streets. We really need an evening club for 16 – 20-year-olds, a safe place for them to go and hang out, but there is nothing!”
Charlie with some of her team at the local Scout Hall
In terms of the regeneration of Deptford itself, Charlie is all for bringing money and businesses into the area – but only if there is enough social housing and if it benefits the right people for the right reasons, something which clearly isn’t happening. “These new developments – they are supposed to give a percentage back into the community, but I don’t know where the money is gone in all those builds around here because I can’t see anything done for the local community. We tried to get money for a desperately-needed new roof for the Scouts Hall, but we were told the Section 106 money had already been spent! Really? Where? The Scouting Association for example are known world-wide, so don’t tell me you don’t know anything about local community groups or where to put your money. Developers are making huge profits and local people are losing out. It’s shocking! With only £5,000, a drop in their ocean, they could do something really lovely for the community. I know parents or some elderly people that only come out once a week to a group. Without that group, they have nowhere to go. I see so many people that are isolated because there is nowhere for them to go where they can find support and information. There used to be a lot of local services and support groups – there was a Somalian mum’s group, a Polish group that started out for vulnerable mums that had come over and developed into a post-natal group that was run by health visitors, there was a breastfeeding group, baby massage, lots of things. There used to be so many funded groups and they have all disappeared because they can’t afford to rent the spaces anymore. There are now massive gaps here for people of all walks of life for all different reasons.”
Luckily, there are a lot of people like Charlie who are making up for some of these gaps, providing assistance for the most vulnerable on a voluntary basis. Even if the community work is also for her own benefit as Charlie says, the positive impact of her commitment to the area will be felt by a lot of people in need. Through this research I have met so many people who spend their own time helping others, and I have witnessed so much good work going on in the community, work that is not heard about, not known about, not praised enough and not funded, and that is a real shame.
Charlie is currently raising money for the local Scout Group. If you would like to donate, please click on this link: https://www.facebook.com/donate/418808578692143/10219087259031627/